Soaring kiwis: New Zealand of the Year finalists

SIMON DAY
Last updated 05:00 24/02/2013
Swee Tan
Fairfax NZ

GROUNDBREAKING: Swee Tan's research into the origin and treatment of strawberry birthmarks is contributing to the treatment of cancer and regenerative medicine.

Anne Salmond
POSITIVE: Dame Anne Salmond says New Zealand's "extraordinary journey" has shaped it into a courageous and inventive country.
Bill Buckley
Fairfax NZ
WORKING CLASS: Bill Buckley is driven by "the love of it all".

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The contender for the New Zealnder of the Year award have made theur names across a contrasting range of feilds, bnut for all of them, the land they call home is central to their stories. Ahead of next week's awards ceremony, Simon Day meets three finalists. 

SWEE TAN

Plastic surgeon Professor Swee Tan is doing great things for global medicine from Hutt Hospital.

His research into the origin and treatment of strawberry birthmarks is contributing to the treatment of cancer and regenerative medicine.

Mr Tan is the hospital's director of surgery and director of the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute, dedicated to researching the cause of diseases such as birthmarks and cancer, and tissue engineering.

The institute is named after Kiwis Harold Gillies and Archibald McIndoe, who were both pioneering plastic surgeons.

But despite championing achievements that have helped his patients reclaim their lives, Mr Tan says his greatest accomplishment is his three children.

Professionally he describes himself as a "catalyst".

"I believe I am bringing people together for a common good," he says. "In terms of my role in being a clinician, I look after patients with problems and that requires me working with loads of different people with different skills and backgrounds and have everybody working towards the same things collaboratively."

Mr Tan has won numerous awards for his research on the treatment of strawberry birthmarks that has moved the medical world closer to a cure for cancer.

But in a field that is often restricted by conservatism and threatened by new ideas, his groundbreaking research might not have happened anywhere else but New Zealand, Mr Tan says.

"The radical ideas are those things that lead to paradigm shifts.

"I don't think necessarily I could do this somewhere else. I suspect these medical concepts might be squashed elsewhere.

"People have asked me, why didn't I go and do this in America. My response is that it hasn't happened in America, it has happened here."

Mr Tan was born in Malaysia and grew up working on his father's plantation. His dreams of one day being a surgeon were laughed at.

"There were people who thought I was mad and I was just a dreamer. But you have to believe in yourself and keep going forward," Mr Tan says.

He arrived in New Zealand in 1987 on a working visa and in the early 90s he was given a chance to take New Zealand citizenship. He seized the opportunity and never looked back.

"I found people so accepting and treated me just like anyone else. I believe this place is a great country," he says.

"For that I am forever grateful because it gave me an opportunity to be involved in this very rewarding field of medicine."

 

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ANNE SALMOND 

Dame Anne Salmond, renowned historian, academic and ecologist, says ''building bridges'' in a country so often divided along cultural lines has been her greatest achievement.

''That has really been the pleasure in my life, working with all these different groups and trying to forge positive relationships across what sometimes seem like caverns,'' she says.

The professor of Maori studies and anthropology at the University of Auckland and the author of seven award-winning books on Maori life and early contacts between Europeans and Pacific Islanders, Dame Anne believes we often forget the similarities in our history and focus on our differences.

Her work has endeavoured to reveal New Zealand's common history. And it is her own history that drove her passion to decipher New Zealand's.

''My ancestors came mostly from Scotland, Yorkshire and Whitby [the home of James Cook], of all places. So it's not a surprise I worked on Cook,'' she says - work which led to her book on the English explorer's journeys through the South Pacific, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog.

Her Celtic ancestors were driven off their land during the Highland clearances and when her great-grandfather migrated to New Zealand he understood the dislocation suffered by Maori.

''[He] had a fantastic affinity with Maori and learnt the language, and became an eminent carver and was a film-maker and a photographer and worked with Apirana Ngata and Peter Buck,'' she says.

''This assumption that all the settlers saw themselves in fundamental opposition to Maori is just not accurate historically.''

A devoted environmentalist raised on the East Coast, Dame Anne has worked on the greening of New Zealand's rivers and over the past 12 years has been restoring the Longbush Reserve near Gisborne.

She disputes that there is a fundamental conflict between New Zealand's economic backbone of farming and the landscape.

''I think that many farmers, on the East Coast where I am from, they say 'take care of the land and the land will take care of you' - you hear that from a guy standing there in his gumboots.''

Dame Anne has received numerous literary awards, scholarships and academic prizes. In 1995 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to New Zealand history; in 2004 she received a Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement for non-fiction; and in 2007 she became an inaugural fellow of the New Zealand Academy of the Humanities.

But despite a global career, she is firmly set in New Zealand.

''It is a very diverse place and very beautiful, and it has this wealth of different traditions that have arrived here with different groups of settlers and I really enjoy that. I don't find it a risk or a threat at allnte,'' she says.

Our ''extraordinary journey'' to where we are now has shaped New Zealand into a courageous and inventive country, Dame Anne says. This history leaves us with a fine platform for New Zealand's next chapter.

''If you have belief in that, we can steer our own course into the future as a country and a society. If we have that confidence and that spirit of adventure then I believe we are going to do great things.''

BILL BUCKLEY 

Bill Buckley is an old-school Kiwi who plays a big role in the way our modern world works.

His company, Buckley Systems, makes machines containing electromagnets that are used to prepare 90 per cent of the world's silicon chips, the key component in most modern technology.But he doesn't consider himself special.

Everything the engineer has achieved was because he loved what he was doing.

''I loved engineering and I loved New Zealand. So I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it here and I wanted to do the best job I could,'' Mr Buckley says.

Since establishing the company in 1986, he has managed to keep his head down and hands dirty, preferring to let others run the books and receive the accolades.

''I have CEOs and CFOs [chief executive officers and chief financial officers] all doing that donkey work. It is that tricky hands-on stuff, working out how to get the job through the shop, what you need to do it, and trying to visualise how to improve it,'' he says.

''My overalls are still grubby, I can't help it.'' 

Mr Buckley has built a business that is vital to the way our technology-driven global world works and he now exports more than 1000 tonnes of silicon chips a month.

''It is quite a challenge to nut out how to make it, and make a profit out of it and make it successful and keep the customers happy,'' he says.

Despite earning a vast fortune Mr Buckley has never been driven by wealth.

''I haven't had that education that profit comes before everything else, like bloody accountants. I'm a fitter and turner by trade,'' he says.

''I haven't been driven for the financial reasons, I have been driven for the love of it all.'' 

His wealth has allowed him to be the key sponsor and advocate for speedway racing, his second passion.

And he is fighting hard to stop the Western Springs track in Auckland being closed.

''I don't understand why they want to chuck us out of the Springs. I think it is the world's best speedway. I have done a lot to try and keep speedway here.''

Mr Buckley has no formal qualifications. He embraces the concept of Kiwi ingenuity, using the skills he learnt growing up on a farm to provide for the needs of the modern world.

The qualifications he identifies are, ''being a farmer's son, and growing up learning how to use my initiative and make sure you don't get backed up in a corner''.

He could make millions more if he moved his business outside New Zealand.

But he is adamant he will be staying put: ''It's not money, it's the art, it's the love of engineering, it's the people I work with - it all adds up to staying here.''

- The Dominion Post

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